Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Serious Look at Comedy, Part II

II. Why Writing Comedy is Easy

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. They both die in the process.” E.B. White

How ya'll been? I hope you haven't lost too much sleep in anticipation of this week's installment.

Here is what I believe: writing comedy is easy. “Well, that's easy for you to say,” you say. “You have a natural knack for it. Unless you have the gift, it's hopeless.”

Not so, my friends. Anyone can learn to write funny, as long as you know a few principles. Being funny in real life is another matter, and I can't help you there. But writing? That's something we can work with.

Why is comedy easy? There is one important thing to remember: everyone wants to laugh. Well, everyone except maybe Mrs. Axechucker, your junior high librarian. Even though it's true that everyone has a different sense of humor, just about everyone is looking for something they can laugh at. It's natural and it feels good. When they pick up your comedic masterpiece, they are rooting for you to succeed at making them laugh. We all have to deal with stress in our daily lives and laughter is a great way to relieve it. I believe we comedy writers don't get enough credit for keeping people from going psycho after a hard day's work. Comedy saves lives.

On a side note, I remember reading about a man, Norman Cousins, who was diagnosed with an 'incurable' illness and sent home to die. He decided laughter would cure his disease, so he got a bunch of Marx brothers movies and laughed himself back to health. True story. Comedy saves lives.

I think stand up comics have done us a bit of a disservice and make us put unfair expectations upon ourselves. The good ones can get us laughing almost every time with their punch lines. It makes us think, “All my jokes need to do this, too. All of my humor needs to end with an amazing zinger that has everyone rolling on the floor.” Though that's not a bad goal, we don't actually have to do that. Humor doesn't rely upon hitting a home run each time we go to bat. It can be, and usually is, more subtle.

Here's another thing: we don't have to write the perfect joke with the first try. There's this thing called rewriting. We'll get several chances during each of our edits to improve or upgrade the joke we first wrote. Many times as I'm writing, I think, “Something funny needs to go here.” I put my brain to work on coming up with something funny, and all I get is, “spice this scene up with a llama.” Or sometimes I just write: [insert joke here]. When nothing better comes along, I'll use whatever poor, weak excuse for a joke I have. There, I put a 'funny' in, but I know I don't want to keep it. I call them 'placer jokes'. When I come back later, I see that joke and go, “Ugh.” So I try again. I may improve it, come up with a better one, or cut it. But that's the thing, we get several shots at coming up with a better line.

Related to the above point is that most jokes are garbage. They say 90% of them are crap. This is true for everyone, even the greatest comedy writers. The trick is to generate, on average, ten jokes for every one we want to use. This is what those great stand up comics do. The odds are we'll come up with an upgrade at some point. This principle applies to plotting our stories, too, which is to not necessarily go with your first thought but to brainstorm several ideas and then pick the best one.
Another thing to help overall with comedy writing is to be a comedy connoisseur. Try watching sitcoms and comedic movies. And if you want to write clean humor, watch the old classics: Leave it to Beaver, Get Smart, Bewitched, The Dick Van Dyke show, etc. Many of these shows had great humor and writing without the questionable stuff. It also can get us in a humorous mood which helps when writing comedy. And when you do find something funny to you, write it down in your comedy journal. This applies to books, too.

Lastly, don't be afraid to let other people read your stuff. This is especially true with comedy. Have several people read it and get responses from them: friends, family, writer's group/enemies. It's also interesting to note who found what to be funny. It will be different for each reader, but if no one likes a joke, that's a good indication to cut it. Often, it is better to have no joke at all than a lame one.
I learned this recently with my attempt to be the first person to write a dystopian comedy. It failed just as miserably as my attempt to write Amish science fiction. The grim mood of the novel made the attempts at humor feel wrong and out of place. As much as my internal comedian hated cutting out all the jokes, it improved the story immensely when I did.

So, don't despair my fellow comedians. In the next articles, we'll explore some concepts and techniques we can use to create an 'atmosphere of funny'. And always remember, comedy saves lives.

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